Sitting down to supper in Nashville is a holy rite of passage for guests and not to be taken lightly. It’s said that a Nashville meal done right makes you feel like hugging your mama, plucking a hymn on an old guitar, and falling asleep in a rocker on a creaky front porch – all at the same time. That’s a hard thing to accomplish, and only a local chef would even try.
That’s why it wasn’t easy for me to imagine the “New Nashville” hotel restaurants holding true to such down-home high-bar expectations. But here’s what I discovered on my quest to “eat on up” in the deeply storied hotels of Music City.
Shut Your Mouth and Eat on Up
It’s best to just get this out of the way first: Yes, it really is all about the chicken. Never does the old adage about jumping “out of the frying pan and into the fire” ring truer than when you’re diving into a plate of the city’s signature fried dish, Nashville Hot Chicken. At Hattie B’s, a pioneer in the hot-chicken subculture and a standard bearer for all who dare to challenge its place in the culinary pecking order, there are progressive levels on how to order it. The Mild version carries a “touch of heat,” while the Damn Hot is a “fire starter” and the highest level carries a sizzling burn notice and a title of “Shut the Cluck Up!!”
Hotel restaurants tend to be on the high end of the gastronomy scale, so I didn’t expect to find Hot Chicken flickering on many menu pages. I was wrong. Just about every hotel, posh or not, has its own version of NHChix – and a chef who proudly justifies his or her nuanced interpretation. As I was told by my Uber driver as he dropped me off for the first foray into Nashville hotel dining: don’t ask too many questions, just “shut your mouth and eat on up.”
Walking into Carter’s is literally walking through a porthole of time. The entrance is the old ticket booth from the hotel’s heritage as a train station, which opened in 1900 during the glory days of rail travel. Diners step across the threshold onto original restored tile floors and dine under glimmering chandeliers and a barrel-vaulted arched dome in the hotel lobby.
The entire experience is dazzling, and the food is far from “depot grub” these days. But you can place bets on it winning awards for the chef’s signature dishes, one of which happens to be Nashville Hot Chicken. Regardless of the slick presentation, Tennessee native executive chef Joey Ray knows to fry it up in buttermilk and serve it with smoked honey, pickles and white bread. He’s also known for making a darn-good version of a grilled sourdough pimento cheese sandwich with bacon jam, as well as smoked ribs and biscuits with gravy. Most Nashvillians know to end a meal at Carter’s with a whiskey flight from a curated list of more than 40 specialty pours.
It’s easy to be distracted when making your way through the classic Art Deco architecture, Tennessee marble walls, curated art exhibits and working printing press in the Noelle Hotel lobby. But my gracious dining host and Chef Dan Herget at Makeready Libations & Liberation made sure that I forgot the siren songs of the hotel’s storied past for at least a couple of hours while making my way through the striking menu of this self-professed “working man’s tavern.”
Surrounded by strings of silhouette art cutouts and industrial pipes, I delved into a charcuterie board of Tennessee hams and local sorghum butter before sampling highlights from the obviously chef-inspired menu. Standout dishes include the whole bucksnort trout and a butcher’s cut steak with shallot marrow butter. The pastry chef wasn’t to be outdone, showing his true mettle with an exquisitely prepared hazelnut cream puff with fruit gems, compote and praline cream. Makeready’s signature “Daily Meat and 3” would have to wait for next time, and the Hot Chicken? It’s on the lunch menu as a sandwich, clucking out from the folds of a potato roll and smothered in hot honey ranch.
Will Friedrichs, Noelle’s general manager of food and beverage operations, stepped over to say hello while dining with his own family across the room. He helps oversee the menu at the hotel’s other venues, the Trade Room lobby bar, the Rare Bird rooftop lounge, and the street-level Drug Store Coffee by caffeine guru Andy Mumma. (Speaking of libations, little-known perks of staying at Noelle Hotel are the Hydration Stations on guest-room levels offering free sparkling, still and chilled water, and the free 10-minute gourmet coffee service delivered to your room.)
Knowing that Ellington’s has a bar cart that makes routine hotel rounds at 5 p.m. every day, I followed my instincts that this was a place where sitting at the classic wood bar overlooking the twinkling city lights was a good bet. I was right.
Cozying into the warmth of low lights and murmuring conversation by locals meeting up for after-work drinks, I opened the menu like it was an abbreviated outline of a story yet to be written. That’s when the bartender smiled and suggested a Dark and Stormy rum cocktail before I ordered – the lead line was inevitably established. It was a dark and stormy night, just before Christmas in Nashville ….
Snippets of stories emerged from around the room, some involving ghosts conjured from haunted hearse tours just down the street, and others revolving around the midcentury-modernist roots of the Fairlane Hotel. As storylines devolved into various interpretations of Boot Scootin’ Boogie, based on the dozens of boot shops on nearby Broadway Street, I was relieved to see a steaming plate of Gulf Shrimp & Grits sliding across the gleaming wood bar top. It was some of the best I’d had in Nashville.
Due to some impromptu friendships fueled by dark-and-stormy storytellers, I had the pleasure of share-plating tastes of the chef’s Scottish salmon with smoked roe and sorrel sauce as well as the lamb chops with dill yogurt. I even braved up for a delizioso taste of squid-ink pasta with blue crab.
Elegance drips from every crevice and corner of the Capital Grille inside The Hermitage, Nashville’s grand dame of heritage and hospitality. I had just spent an afternoon with Tom Vickstrom, the hotel’s shockingly informed historian and the epitome of a cultured Southern Gentleman. It should have come as no surprise that the hotel’s restaurant would hold sway with the gentility of the entire property, even though its name alludes to a bustling downtown urban grill.
Though Capital Grill gets plenty of well-deserved attention for serving the best filet mignons in the city, what Executive Chef Derek Brooks really brings to the table is an earthier expertise. Like a sophisticated version of a Southern Mama concocting “mash-ups” in a country kitchen, Chef Derek creates his masterpieces from earth-offerings planted, grown and harvested by the hotel. Just 10 minutes away, they run an heirloom period garden on the historic Glen Leven Farm property in partnership with the Land Trust for Tennessee. The gardens supply all the sustainably farmed seasonal vegetables and herbs for Capital Grill dishes, including kale, corn, turnips, carrots, basil, thyme and pumpkin (and yes, the collard greens for their Hot Chicken Confit).
Though it sounds like a trendy thing for a restaurant to grow their own produce, The Hermitage is just doing what they’ve done for more than 100 years. The hotel is the perfect personification of the Nashville mindset when it comes to food, and they say it like it is:
We’re not your modern foodies and we don’t say farm-to-table. It’s much simpler than that. We’re southerners and we’re farmers – and that’s just our way of life.